Friday, January 22, 2016

Uber gets a taxi brokerage licence despite controversy over ride-sharing

The city says Uber Canada is now operating as a legal taxi brokerage in Toronto despite continuing to illegally connect riders to unlicensed drivers.

On Friday morning, Uber announced it had received its taxi brokerage licence after applying in May amid ongoing controversy about bringing the company under the same city rules as traditional taxi companies.

Those within the taxi industry criticized that move Friday, saying little has changed and Uber still isn’t following the rules.

Uber, which links riders with available cabs through its UberTaxi service on a mobile app, also offers cheaper rides through unlicensed drivers using the UberX service on the same app.

“This is another step towards our participation in a comprehensive regulatory solution that includes ride-sharing,” Uber Canada spokesperson Susie Heath said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the City of Toronto towards new regulations for ride-sharing, which are expected in the coming months.”

Tracey Cook, the head of the city’s municipal licensing and standards, drew a line between the two services, saying she considers UberTaxi now operating as a legal taxi brokerage.

“For the purposes of dispatching or connecting licensed City of Toronto taxi cabs under UberTaxi that is lawfully permitted under the taxi cab brokerage license,” Cook said, while at the same time confirming UberX is still operating illegally.

According to the city’s rules, taxi brokerages are prohibited from connecting riders to unlicensed cabs. Any dispatch company breaking those rules could be fined $50,000 with an additional $25,000 levied against each company director.

Cook said they continue to enforce the current bylaws against UberX drivers and the company, with 120 bylaw charges currently before the courts and another 180 to 210 charges being processed. 

Licensing staff are also working on new regulations to bring UberX under city rules, which are expected to be put forward in April.

This change follows months of controversy after the city took Uber to court over claims they were operating illegally in the city — a fight that is playing out across North America.

After a Superior Court judge ruled last year that Uber was operating outside the legal framework and not breaking city rules, council voted to update the bylaws to bring those Uber services using licensed taxis and limos into the city’s jurisdiction.

The brokerage licence, which costs $400 to get and less to renew each year, puts Uber in the same league with major cab companies such as Beck — one of several groups vocally opposing the service they say is taking away drivers’ livelihoods.

On Friday, Beck spokesperson Kristine Hubbard said she’s glad for the acknowledgement that Uber is a taxi dispatcher just like her company, even as Uber continues to label itself a “ridesharing” service. 

But Hubbard said she’s stunned by the city’s position.

“It is irresponsible at best that we would see our regulatory body issue a licence to a company that has constantly broken the rules, constantly undermined authority and has no respect for our legal system here,” Hubbard said.

“If the Beck Taxi app was to connect today someone to an unlicensed vehicle we would be charged against our brokerage licence.”

Hubbard questioned why the same would not apply to Uber.

Councillor Jim Karygiannis — who has been firmly aligned with the taxi industry since arriving at city hall — said he plans to bring a motion to the licensing committee, which is meeting Friday, asking the city to seek a court injunction against UberX.

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